Iowa’s Quinn Schulte, former walk-on, has become the glue in Hawkeyes secondary

IOWA CITY, Iowa — It has become an annual feel-good ritual at Iowa, when head coach Kirk Ferentz has a short conversation with a walk-on and awards him with a scholarship. The timing happens at random, sometimes after games, during camp practices or before offseason drills. The most emotional moment for the player often doesn’t come from Ferentz’s words but from telling his parents the news.

At a skill workout earlier this summer, Ferentz placed three former walk-ons on scholarship. Among them was junior safety Quinn Schulte, a former two-time state champion quarterback at nearby Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Xavier High School. Ferentz pulled Schulte aside during a skill workout, passed along the news and then announced it in a team meeting.

“It was really cool,” Schulte said. “It’s definitely an experience I’ll never forget, and I’m very grateful.”

What happened next was the segment that gets left out of the heartwarming videos. How does the player spring it on his parents? For advice, Schulte asked senior defensive end Joe Evans, who was put on scholarship in 2020. Evans told him the most rewarding part was to tell his parents in person. So, Schulte left the football complex, hopped in his vehicle and traveled north about 30 miles to Cedar Rapids.

At Xavier, Duane Schulte coaches one of the state’s powerhouse football programs. Before the largest classification was split based on enrollment, he guided the Saints to the 2006 state championship. He has since led Xavier to six more state title appearances and three championships, including one last weekend. On the morning of his son’s big accomplishment, coach Schulte conducted morning workouts at Xavier and then arrived home around 10:30 a.m. He sat with his daughter, Hope, and the front door opened.

“We didn’t expect anybody,” coach Schulte said, “and in walks Quinn. I’m like, ‘What are you doing here?’ And he’s like, ‘I just wanted to come up and tell you that I got a scholarship.’ It’s just like, ‘Oh, my God, that’s awesome.’

“And I go, ‘Why did you do it like this?’ And he goes, ‘Well, Joe Evans told me that when he earned his scholarship, he literally drove to his parents’ house and told them live in person. So, I’m going to do the same thing. So that’s why I’m here.’”

Quinn Schulte had an interception against Maryland in 2021 and added another one this season against Illinois. (Greg Fiume/Getty Images)

What makes the occasion swirl with love, tears and joy centers on parental pride. It’s compounded by the financial commitment families make for walk-ons beyond just the full cost of college attendance. Years of cumulative expenses for camps, skill instruction, nutrition, equipment and road trips add to the jubilance.

“They obviously made a lot of sacrifices for me, and I’m very grateful,” Schulte said. “It’s just a good feeling to know that they don’t necessarily have to worry about so much about money for my school and tuition anymore.”

Schulte had one task left after telling his father. His mother, Sherry, was at work that morning, and he wanted to alter her in person, too.

“I suggested that he stop at McDonald’s and get a Diet Coke because she loves the fountain Diet Coke from McDonald’s,” coach Schulte said. “So that’s what he did. He went over to her office and told her, gave her the Diet Coke, and then he headed back down to Iowa City for more workouts. So, it was a pretty brief trip, but to the point.”

Anyone who knows Schulte, or ‘Q’ as he’s known around the football complex, understands his conversations are based on word economy. He doesn’t talk much, but what he says has value. A pre-dentistry major, Schulte holds a 3.73 GPA and was one of four Iowa players to earn College Sports Communicators Academic All-District honors Tuesday. His intelligence and studious nature translate to the field.

“One thing about Quinn, he’s very quiet, and he really pays attention,” said defensive coordinator Phil Parker, who also directs Iowa’s secondary. “His dad being a high school coach and in the family tree as far as being around football all the time, it’s good to have a guy out there that sees things, knows what’s going on. He can gather information really fast.”

Iowa plays a zone-based coverage system designed with as many eyes as possible on the football. It enables Parker to incorporate rigid guidelines on field geometry and physical characteristics. Talent alone does not elevate a player to the starting lineup; toughness and comprehension are just as vital. By virtually every metric, the philosophy works for Iowa. Since 2015, the Hawkeyes have the most interceptions of any program with 130 and rank fourth in yards per play allowed (4.7).

As a result, Parker’s reliance on intangibles provides walk-ons with as much of a shot to play as heavily recruited athletes. For more than 15 years, non-scholarship and two-star defenders have thrived in Iowa’s defense. For six consecutive seasons, a walk-on from a state parochial high school has become a starting safety. In 2017-18, it was Davenport Assumption’s Jake Gervase, who currently plays as a safety-linebacker hybrid for the Los Angeles Rams. From 2019-21, it was West Des Moines Dowling’s Jack Koerner, who last year notched the most solo tackles of any Iowa defensive back since Bob Sanders in 2002. Now, it’s Schulte.

But Parker bestows Schulte with perhaps the greatest comparison of all Iowa walk-on defensive backs: four-year starter Brett Greenwood (2007-10).

“Very similar to, I would say, Brett,” Parker said. “I categorize him in that thing. Very quiet. Doesn’t say very much. Just going to work. Understands what you are asking him to do. He works for perfection. That’s what he is trying to do.

“Is he the biggest guy? No. Neither were the other guys, right? What he does in his preparation and the way he goes about his business, is he doing it the best he can? He has done a really good job.”

Greenwood became a second-team All-Big Ten safety and had 12 career interceptions. In 2011, Greenwood suffered a heart attack while working out following the NFL preseason and nearly died. After years of meticulous physical therapy, Greenwood led the Hawkeyes’ Swarm in 2015, resulting in one of Kinnick Stadium’s greatest moments.

Along with their zone positioning, safeties must display hitting ability to play for Parker, a former three-time first-team All-Big Ten strong safety. Listed at 6-foot-1, 208 pounds, Schulte is well put together after gaining 25 pounds since arriving on campus. This year, he ranks fourth on the team in tackles with 47 and has dislodged receivers from the ball multiple times this season. Most importantly, according to Pro Football Focus, he has missed only three tackles.

“From Day 1, he’s always been somebody that’s been locked in, been focused, always asking questions, always wants to know why we’re doing this or how we were doing this,” senior safety Kaevon Merriweather said. “When he got his opportunity to show what he could do on the field and put a product out, he was always where he needed to be. He was always making plays, always ended up in the right spot. And I think that he just gained coach Parker’s trust over time.”

Based on Schulte’s background, it’s not hard to see why Parker liked him from the beginning. As a multiyear starting dual-threat quarterback at Xavier, Schulte was 37-1 in his final three seasons with state titles at quarterback as a junior and senior. He holds every program record for touchdowns and total offense in a game, season and career. He also played safety and intercepted 10 passes.

A four-sport athlete, Schulte also won two state titles in basketball and one in baseball his senior year, in which the season wrapped up in late July.

“He just loves to compete and loves to work and grind,” coach Schulte said. “His team won a state baseball championship on a Saturday night, and they had a ceremony for the team to come back to Xavier at like 10:30 at night. And then when that got over, he was at Iowa’s football camp the next morning at 6:30. So, he had like a seven-hour break between his high school sport and being in camp, which he wanted to do. He didn’t say a word about it.”

With his multi-sport excellence, Schulte wasn’t without scholarship opportunities. Northern Iowa and South Dakota State both offered him, and Iowa State invited him as a walk-on, too. But his older brother, Bryce, was a backup tight end at Iowa. The combination of playing alongside his brother and competing for a program he grew up following outranked the other options.

When he arrived at Iowa, Schulte latched on to Koerner, who did the same previously with Gervase. Their preparation and attention to detail allowed them to compete with scholarship athletes. Schulte joined the depth chart as a sophomore behind Koerner and intercepted a pass at Maryland late in a 2021 game. This year, Schulte’s one interception came at Illinois when he stifled an Illini drive on the 1-yard line.

“The coaches just give everyone an opportunity,” Schulte said. “You’ve got to go out there and earn everything that you can get. You just have to try to take advantage of the opportunities that you get. They might be a little or they might be a lot.”

(Top photo: Frank Jansky / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)


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